SoSe 17: Crime and Punishment in American Culture and Society
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion ... Lesen Sie weiter
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” ---– The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne -----
Nathaniel Hawthorne opens The Scarlet Letter by presuming the social necessity of punishment, implying with the same stroke the inevitability of criminal transgression. The prison, Hawthorne’s “black flower of civilized society”, blossoms inexorably from the soil of American utopian aspirations, in which crime and punishment become co-constitutive with the establishment of society itself. Hawthorne’s text not only dredges the dark depths of early American culture, but simultaneously helps to call that culture into being, and with it the parameters of a social order established within the historical contours of a distinctly American legacy of crime and punishment. -----
American culture has proven particularly fertile ground for the imagination of crime and punishment. Crime, always more than a mere offence against the law, has proven a particularly generative theme. Many American archetypes such as the outlaw, the frontiersman, or the vigilante pursue anarchic ideals of an unfettered, lawless liberty while commonly embodying hegemonic notions of white masculinity. At the same time, the correlation of certain racial, sexual and socio-economic markers with wickedness, disease, and criminality stigmatize physical difference and social deviance. As a result, America’s love affair with crime and the criminal has been as ambiguous as it is intense.
Born of homegrown reformist innovations and old-world moral philosophy, the prison is perhaps America’s most fear-reaching institutional export. Celebrated for curbing the excessive brutality of the State, its mission has always been hopelessly utopian, aiming for nothing less than the moral rebirth of the fallen Man. Contested since its inception by those worried at the harm of tampering with the mysteries of the human mind, it was conceived as a technology for reforming the soul; yet its perverse conquest is now measured only in terms of bodies captured. Today, the United States incarcerates around 2.5 million people. Although its seeds were sown by the religious cultures of Northern Protestantism, the prison has always had roots firmly planted in the blighted soil of Southern slavery. This legacy is evident even in our contemporary moment; although they only make up 13% of the population overall, 40% of prisoners are African American. -----
This course explores aspects of American culture and society which have helped to cultivate the contemporary crisis of mass incarceration in the United States. It aims to provide a survey of texts in various media and forms through which we will examine tropes and themes of crime and punishment. Sources will include traditional objects of literary and cultural analysis, such as novels and films, as well as sociological and historical texts. -----
The course is divided into four parts. Starting with contemporary mass incarceration, we will look at texts which document both our contemporary moment and its history in order to ground our work in a firm historical and theoretical context. The second part will focus on the literary history of crime and punishment. The third section will turn to more contemporary social practices and processes of criminalization, as well as their cultural and sociological representations. Finally, we will turn to the site of the prison, which we will dive into through a combination of ethnographic, historical and televisual accounts. -----
Interested students should obtain and begin reading the novels The Scarlet Letter and Native Son as early as possible. In addition, students are encouraged to begin watching the TV series The Wire, Oz, and Orange is the New Black in their free time. -----
The first class meeting will be on Monday April 24th from 4-6 pm, after which we will hold a screening of the documentary 13th in room 340 from 6-8 pm. Class participants who will be unable to attend the screening should contact me ASAP at email@example.com.